Design lessons from the deaf

New universal design guidelines consider how people who communicate with sign language use and modify spaces.
Written by Sun Kim, Contributor

Navigating busy city streets can be confusing and irritating for almost anyone. But for people who are hearing impaired, the visual and audial clutter actually impede how they move through the urban spaces and at worst, create dangerous situations.

In an article for The Atlantic Cities, Kim A. O'Connell details a set of DeafSpace Guidelines produced by Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. The Guidelines outline the challenges faced by the deaf community in the built environment and how to address those challenges with better design.

People who communicate with sign language need to be able to see each other, and at the same time watch where they are going. DeafSpace refers to the ways that the deaf community shift their behavior or alter their surroundings to create the space needed to communicate with sign language. Whether the alterations are rearranging furniture, removing walls, or creating openings, the adjustments produce the visual and touch clues that inform a deaf person's spatial awareness and orientation.

“The clarity with which a deaf person communicates relates to the clarity and clutter of what’s around them,” says Hansel Bauman, director of campus design and planning at Gallaudet, who led the multiyear effort to create the DeafSpace Guidelines. “Space becomes an essential part of how you communicate.”

The DeafSpace Guidelines catalog over one hundred and fifty architectural design elements and include five major considerations when designing public and urban environments with the deaf community in mind:

  1. Sensory reach - designing in 360 degrees, considering visual and tactile cues such as shadows and vibrations to help deaf people read their surroundings
  2. Space and proximity - designing space and furniture layouts for the space required to maintain clear visual communication when using sign language
  3. Mobility and proximity - designing circulation and gathering spaces so that signers can move uninterrupted by possible hazards
  4. Light and color - reducing or removing visual interruptions such as glare, shadow patterns, and back lighting
  5. Acoustics (electromagnetic interferences) - reducing or removing reverberation and background noise to accommodate different kinds and degrees of hearing loss

Gallaudet University is already using the Guidelines in new construction and renovation projects on their campus. The university's research and work is a huge step towards truly universal and inclusive urban design.

Related on SmartPlanet:

How to design better city streets for the blind

The power of universal design at Ed Roberts Campus

Designing a City for the Deaf [The Atlantic Cites]

Image: Gallaudet University News

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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